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A Day in the Death of Joe Egg review: Pin-sharp revival is as heartbreaking and funny as ever

Marc Brenner
Marc Brenner

Peter Nichols’s play was ground-breaking in 1967 and remains heartbreaking and savagely funny today.

A semi-autobiographical study of parents coping with a severely disabled child, it smashes down taboos and the fourth wall, blending the profound and the pedestrian to comic effect. Simon Evans’s pin-sharp revival features a bravura performance from Toby Stephens and a positively radiant one from Claire Skinner.

Usually Joe is played by a young child. Here 26-year-old Storme Toolis, who has cerebral palsy, plays her as a 15-year-old. It makes the character more dimensional and underlines the toll her care takes on her parents.

Joe can’t speak or control her limbs or bodily functions. She cries, drools and suffers fits. Her mother Sheila treats her with patient love and optimism but goes along with the sick jokes and sardonic fantasies her teacher husband Bri deploys as a coping mechanism. Randy, exasperated Bri is first to enlist the audience’s sympathy until Sheila tells us how needy he is, and how spoiled he is by his awful mother (Patricia Hodge in a killer cameo).

A pair of “helpful” friends (Lucy Eaton and Clarence Smith, both very good) force us to examine our own moral positions on quality of life, and on death. Some of the attitudes have dated — Sheila blames her past “promiscuity” for Joe’s condition — but the dilemmas haven’t.

Stephens shows us the fear beneath Bri’s showy bravado and is lacerating in the final scenes. Skinner shines, making a saintly character magnetic and witty; her description of a minor improvement in Joe is like watching dawn break. Peter McKintosh’s designs are full of Sixties detail, including a wheelchair-unfriendly hallway. Nichols died last month aged 92. I can’t think of a more fitting tribute than Evans’s production.

Until Nov 30

Buy tickets for A Day in the Death of Joe Egg with GO London